When you’re in danger, the first response is to either fight it off or flee the scene to protect yourself, and I mean, it’s the instinct that drives our reaction of flight-or-fight, but did you know that there’s another overlooked stress response called the tend-and-befriend response?
The fight-or-flight stress response is the response that causes us to either challenge the danger or flee from the stressor. This stress response has been responsible for our survival for centuries, but we’ve overlooked another stress response where our instincts drive us to protect our young ones and then rely on social support for survival.
That’s what the tend and befriend response is all about. Just like animals, humans also use this strategy as a reaction to stress. What’s interesting is that this lesser-known stress response comes more easily to females.
Let’s discover what the tend and befriend response is, what research suggests, and what is the importance of this response (with examples) below.
What’s The Tend-And-Befriend Response?
“Tend” refers to caring for the young ones or offspring, if you will, while “Befriend” refers to the act of seeking social support during stressful times. The “tend and befriend” response can be defined as “the response that drives females to respond to threat/danger by nurturing and/or protecting their young ones and seeking social attention and help.”
This stress response is a relatively new one as it was first coined in 2000 by an American psychology professor, Shelley Taylor. This theory or response suggests that when faced with potential danger or threat, humans respond by caring for their young ones and then relying on others for support.
The research that prompted this theory notes that when threatened, humans are likely to lean on each other instead of attacking one another. Especially females. The tend and befriend response also suggests that females are biologically inclined to respond to threats this way.
Moreover, Taylor also noted that humans being social creatures makes them more susceptible to relying on social interactions for survival.
All in all, the tend and befriend response suggests that females, especially, are driven by their instincts to respond to stress by protecting their young ones and befriending others for social support.
Biological Responses To Stress
Men are more likely to respond with the fight-or-flight response, whereas women are more likely to respond with the tend-and-befriend response. Why? Well, the answer can lie with the hormone, oxytocin. This stress response is the body’s response to protecting a pregnant lady or a lady with young children during a threatening or stressful situation.
Why oxytocin? This hormone plays an important role in nurturing and loving, and even more so when we talk about childbirth and breastfeeding. It is believed that when you come into contact with positive groups (social support, in our case), oxytocin is released that can help reduce the stress response (fight or flight) as well as counteract the adrenaline and cortisol in the body.
According to Shelley Taylor, females (no matter the species) are likely to exhibit tend and befriend instinct, while males are more likely to react aggressively which might incline toward the fight or flight response.
It’s not just that females are likely to respond with the tend and befriend response, even males can too. In a 2020 study, it was observed that males are less likely to express their feelings or hurts, so the need to respond with the fight or flight response could stem from social expectations and norms that are consistent with masculinity in many cultures.
Tend-And-Befriend vs. Fight-Or-Flight Response
The fight-and-flight response has its benefits and has been very helpful in survival for centuries. If you flee from the threat or fight it (and win), you could live to see the next sunrise, after all. However, another thing becomes a barrier here. Because of this stress response, you tend to break from the group or separate from them. This can bring you a disadvantage.
There’s a saying, “Safety in numbers,” and I believe that there’s a reason for that. The tend and befriend response seems to stem from the instinctual need to protect one’s children and drifting to social groups to seek safety. You can respond with the tend and befriend response even if you don’t have children or young ones to protect.
Handling a stressful situation or facing a challenge alone can be overwhelming but when you turn to your social support system or trusted ones, imagine how less overwhelming the situation could be.
Convenient, isn’t it?
During the fight-and-flight response, the response is more biochemical, meaning that your body goes through physical changes including;
Activating adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline
Increasing blood pressure, heartbeat, and breathing
Reducing logical, critical, or rational thinking
However, not all stress triggers are immediate. When you’re struggling with chronic stress, it’s common to respond with the tend-and-befriend response.
Seeking social support during chronic stress can be more helpful than running away or avoiding the stress triggers. You might still experience some of the physical changes (for example; hyper-alertness) but you’ll also find yourself leaning on social support.
Examples Of The Tend And Befriend Response
The tend and befriend response might be more common after you’ve gone through a major traumatic event. For example; if you’ve experienced a car accident and have been in the hospital under care for some time, then you’ll find responding better when a loved one cares for your children or any young ones in the family (or even when you have social support to rely on during your hospitalization).
Another example can be when you find solace and safety in a supportive community after and during recovery from a natural disaster.
This response might not only be experienced during major events but can also be seen in day-to-day life experiences such as;
Offering to buy groceries for your elderly or physically-compromised neighbors
Inviting new neighbors to stay with you during stressful times
Cooking together with the family after a stressful day at work
Gathering together with a group of coworkers for support after your manager announces mass layoffs
Are There Limitations To This Response?
According to Shelley Taylor, there are some challenges and limitations to the tend and befriend response. If one of the other parties is not on the same page about the need for social support, then the result of the tend and befriend response can be negative.
Moreover, not all social interactions can be helpful. For example, if you’re in an abusive relationship, then you might continue to stay in the relationship because of your tend and befriend response instead of breaking the abusive relationship with the fight-or-flight response.
The tend and befriend response might not come instinctually to many, but you can learn to respond with this stress response when you think it might help you break free from stress.
What you need to remember is that there’s no such thing as being too scared to ask for help. It’s OK to take care of things alone, but you don’t have to.
Asking for help from your social support system can help you reduce your stress and lower your overwhelming feelings. Just ask for help when you need it.
In the end, the tendency and befriending stress response is all about seeking safety and connection when there might not seem to be any. Seeking the support and strength of your loved ones can offer silent support during stressful times.
I hope this article helped you understand what is the tend and befriend response and how we react to it is. For more, you can write to us at email@example.com DM us on social media.
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